"What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist or the dusky dusk?" "What makes the muskrat guard his musk?"

All together reply: "Courage."

As a new college graduate, you're ready to put your degree to work.

But as you step away from the familiar and into the next phase of your life, you may find yourself wishing that the "Great and Powerful Oz" would hang a triple cross around your neck and instantly make you a member of the League of Courage.

Courage is required in asking for letters of recommendation.

While even the most sterling of letters won't get you the job, a strong letter can help get you in the door by showcasing your abilities and building your credibility as a future employee or graduate student.

Rob Liddell, Saint Leo's director of career planning, offers the following advice for grads looking for letters of recommendation.

And remember, the only thing the Wizard of Oz really did was remind the Cowardly Lion that he already had the courage he so strongly desired all along.


1. Who should I approach for a letter of recommendation?

Rob Liddell: Seek out references based on your interest or the next step you are taking in your life.

For an example, suppose you want to continue your education in graduate school.

In most graduate programs, the admission decision is the responsibility of the academic department housing the graduate program. Academic departments can be strongly hierarchical structures where department chairs and full professors carry more influence than assistant professors or lecturers. So I would recommend that you approach the chair of your academic department or the most senior faculty member familiar with your work for a reference.

If you're applying for your first professional, post-college job, solicit both an academic reference and a reference from a member of another area of the university such as athletics, development, or student services.

Providing a reference from an off-campus employer can also be beneficial because that person could describe your contributions and potential within a work environment.

2. How many letters of reference do I need?

Rob Liddell: There really isn't an ideal number, but I encourage students to develop between three and five references.

I use the word "develop" intentionally.

Keep in mind, you're not entitled to strong letters of reference simply because you need one to complete or compliment your application or a job search.

Most faculty and university administrators are happy to help students; however, if they have limited exposure to your ability, the reference could be limited in its effectiveness.

Students who are able to attract strong letters of reference have usually invested the time towards the cultivation of those references as early as the second year of school by getting involved and connecting with faculty and administration both in and out of the classroom.

3. How do I ask someone for a letter of reference?

Rob Liddell: By email, phone, or in person, it doesn't really matter. It just depends on your relationship with the person you are asking.

What is more important is how you word your request. Rather than opening the conversation with "Could you write me reference?," ask a more specific question such as, "Do you feel comfortable giving me a good reference?"

If expediency is key and you request a reference via e-mail, the potential referent has an opportunity to decline without embarrassment. While this response might feel like a setback, remember that your goal is quality not quantity. You want to submit a series of positive, specific references rather than a handful of lukewarm assessments.

4. Should I use social media to request a letter of recommendation?

Rob Liddell: Students who have taken to social networking, specifically LinkedIn, really have an advantage. Recruiters – and, to a lesser extent, graduate admission professionals – continue to positively respond to the integration of social networking as a recruitment tool.

If you have developed a strong professional profile on LinkedIn, you have a great opportunity to connect with others and cultivate recommendations and endorsements based on work you have collaborated on in real time. Your LinkedIn profile can become a magnet for opportunity.

Another benefit of collecting recommendations via LinkedIn is that you have the opportunity to accept or reject recommendations.

Most LinkedIn users would love to have more recommendations reflected on their profile but are frustrated at their results in gathering them. A strategy that I have personally adopted is to offer a recommendation proactively.

As I invite new contacts into my professional network I aim to add value to their professional profile. Simply offering a sincere recommendation based on my interactions with them shows them value and in turn, oftentimes, triggers a reciprocal recommendation.

5. How can I tell if someone might not be a good reference/recommender?

Rob Liddell: In my mind, there are three red flags to signal that you invited someone incapable or unwilling to provide a good reference.

  • Surprise: A good referent should expect your request and, in other cases, offer a recommendation before you ask for it.

  • Hesitancy: If a faculty member or another potential supporter has trouble saying "yes" or tries to talks you out of your invitation, let the person off the hook.

  • Execution: The third red flag which would give me pause concerning the quality and content of the reference is execution. If your supporter agreed to write the letter but has failed to deliver it to you or to submit it to its intended audience, get started on some additional targets.

Make sure you give your referents enough time to compose the letter and make them aware its optimal delivery schedule. If you have included these deadlines and they have failed to deliver – or have been evasive in communication – better to move on.

6. How should I communicate my goals and remind the writer about my qualifications and strengths?

Rob Liddell: Again, don't seek a recommendation from someone who has little to no first-hand experience with your ambitions, goals, and talents. Select someone with whom you have a relationship.

  • Request a meeting to catch up with your potential referent.
  • Describe your future plans, be it graduate school or professional employment.

  • Draw specific inferences to previous interactions – for example, research, conference attendance, class project, student organization leadership with your supporter.

  • Provide a copy of your updated resume for the referent to specifically address and include in their letter.

7. How should I follow-up with a reference?

Rob Liddell: Once a referent has agreed to write a strong letter of recommendation on your behalf, follow-up in writing conveying your appreciation and providing any pertinent information they would need.

  • Submit a job description or a description of the graduate program you're applying to for your supporter's review.

  • Share any deadlines with your recommender.

  • Make yourself available to confirm any information used in the letter.

Finally, an additional practice that I strongly suggest is updating your supporters on any developments associated with your job search or admission candidacy. Letting them know that you have interviewed and are expecting a favorable result or that you were not selected is oftentimes appreciated by these allies.

Do you have any other advice on how to get a sterling letter of recommendation?

"In the current economic atmosphere, the importance of effective career planning cannot go understated," says Rob Liddell, Saint Leo's director of Career Planning. Rob emphasizes the advantages of career exploration, experiential career learning such as internships, industry and occupational research, and networking. Rob joined Saint Leo from the University of South Florida where he is pursuing a doctorate in higher education administration. He works with students at University Campus, online, and at university centers. Reach him at 352-588-8346 or robert.liddell@saintleo.edu.

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Image Credit: x-ray delta one on Flickr/Creative Commons